'Harry Clarke': Theater Review

Courtesy of Carol Rosegg
Billy Crudup in 'Harry Clarke'
Crudup's solo turn dazzles.
12/23/2017

Billy Crudup plays a man who assumes a British identity and insinuates himself into a wealthy family in this solo play by David Cale.

Sting's song "An Englishman in New York" would provide the perfect accompaniment for Harry Clarke, the new one-man play starring Billy Crudup. After all, this piece written by David Cale, now receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theater, concerns a cocky Brit who moves to the Big Apple in search of love and adventure.

The song would be perfect, that is, if Harry Clarke were actually British. In truth, he's Philip Brugglestein, hailing from South Bend, Indiana, who first created a fictional persona for himself when he was 8 years old. 

"I could be myself if I had an English accent," Harry tells us at the beginning of his story. He relates how, following the death of his parents when he was 18, he sold the family house, moved to New York, adopted a new name and from then on spoke only in a working-class British accent. Nothing too posh, of course, since he tells people he hails from Elstree, north of London. "Where the film studios are," he explains.

Harry's meandering tale mostly centers on what happens after he impulsively decides to follow a stranger on the streets of midtown and strikes up a conversation with him at a bar. The encounter would seem to be fleeting, but not long afterwards Harry runs into the man, whose name is Mark Schmidt, at an off-Broadway theater. This time, a more substantial connection is formed and Harry soon receives an invitation to join Mark and his family at their posh Newport, Rhode Island, home and sail aboard their yacht named "Jewish-American-Princess."

Harry, who impresses Mark's relatives by telling them that he spent 20 years working as personal assistant to the pop singer Sade, quickly becomes embroiled in the family's affairs. That eventually includes sexual dalliances with Mark, his singer-songwriter sister, and even his 67-year-old mother. (That's assuming you can fully believe Harry, who, after all, is not the most trustworthy of narrators.) The story ultimately takes a dark turn, with Harry's fortunes dramatically affected as a result.

It's not surprising that Cale, who has previously written and performed such acclaimed solo plays as The Redthroats and Lillian, would hand off this piece to Crudup. The charismatic, handsome actor exudes sex appeal, making his character's seductive talents fully credible. He also delivers a tour-de-force performance; effortlessly delineating his multiple characters, switching accents at the drop of a hat and even singing some (pretty terrible) original songs.

Unfortunately, his protean efforts are on behalf of a shaggy-dog story that, while it has its entertaining moments and wittily amusing observations, doesn't add up to very much. Coming across like a mild, less lethal variation on The Talented Mr. Ripley with a touch of Six Degrees of Separation, the play feels attenuated even at its 80-minute running time. 

Crudup nonetheless makes it worthwhile, and the piece, performed on a simple set featuring a chair and table on a wooden deck, has received a polished staging by Leigh Silverman (Broadway's Violet and Well). Alan C. Edwards' subtle shifts in lighting and Bart Fasbender's textured sound design enhance the proceedings, giving the story an almost cinematic feel. It feels appropriate for this depiction of a character who seems to be living in a movie of his own invention.

Venue: Vineyard Theatre, New York
Cast: Billy Crudup
Playwright: David Cale

Director: Leigh Silverman
Set designer: Alexander Dodge

Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Alan C. Edwards

Sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Presented by The Vineyard Theatre

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